Two Years Of The Covid-19 Pandemic – A Retrospective
Subject: Corona, Employees
Exactly two years ago, on March 16, 2020, Bertelsmann companies around the world sent thousands of employees to work from home, to protect their health and minimize the risk of Corona infection in the workplace. At the same time, extensive protective measures were introduced at the places of work. We look back on two years of the pandemic and how Bertelsmann has dealt with it.
“Corona places some constraints on us, but won’t stop us” – wrote Bertelsmann Chairman & CEO Thomas Rabe in a letter to the company’s employees worldwide on March 13, 2020, and his forecast proved accurate. Despite the relocation of tens of thousands of jobs to home offices, despite the elimination of business trips and face-to-face meetings, and despite all the uncertainties of the global economy, Bertelsmann went on to deliver two extremely strong financial years. This success, Rabe repeatedly emphasized in subsequent letters on Corona, is also due to the flexibility and commitment of employees worldwide. Bertelsmann’s businesses, the CEO noted in an interview with the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung” at the beginning of March, had proven “very resilient” during the Covid-19 crisis.
Solidarity among Bertelsmann companies
Of course, Corona was already a major topic for Bertelsmann in the months before Thomas Rabe’s first Chairman’s Letter on the subject. Employees were affected by the rapid spread of the virus and the associated measures taken by governments and companies – first in China, and then especially in northern Italy. Right from the start, Bertelsmann companies sent a message of solidarity with mutual aid campaigns, e.g. in January 2020 with the shipment of 20,000 protective masks from Gütersloh to Beijing and Shanghai, which primarily benefited employees at Arvato Supply Chain Solutions’ distribution centers there. Two months later, employees in China returned the favor by sending tens of thousands of masks to Gütersloh, from where they were distributed to Rome, Milan, Paris and Zagreb, among other things to protect RTL Group journalists during their reporting assignments in the epicenters of the pandemic. By the end of January 2020, the Bertelsmann Executive Board had urgently advised against business trips to China, and on March 4, the ban on business travel was extended to the entire world. It would not be lifted again until March 21 of this year, i.e. next Monday.
But for many employees – including employees at the Corporate Center in Gütersloh – March 16, 2020, a Monday, marks the day when the Covid-19 pandemic finally pushed its way to the forefront of working life. On that day, many thousands of employees were sent to work from their homes. Overnight, so to speak, the conditions for successful work from home offices were put in place, and personal contact with colleagues and business partners was replaced by Zoom, Skype and Teams. The fact that this seemingly almost impossible task of very quickly and smoothly relocating entire departments and companies to home offices was accomplished at all is primarily owed to the flexibility of the employees and the Herculean efforts of the IT departments in the companies. The upshot is that today, numerous Bertelsmann companies have established permanent arrangements for flexible WFH, which have changed the working world at Bertelsmann regardless of what is happening with the pandemic. Many companies have also had good experiences with new event formats such as virtual townhall meetings.
Various WFH models and protective measures
The extent to which working from home (WFH) was relied on during the Covid-19 crisis varied from country to country and from company to company. In some places, such as the Corporate Center in Gütersloh, some employees returned to the office after just a few months, and a hybrid model was established in which work was done partly from home and partly in the office. Many companies have since permanently adopted this hybrid way of working for the future. Other companies were unable to send many of their employees to work from home at all due to the nature of the workplaces; this is the case, for example, at the Printing Group’s print shops and Arvato Supply Chain Solutions’ large distribution centers. They had to – and did – come up with other concepts to best protect their employees from Corona in the workplace. The list of measures introduced at the time ranged from regular disinfection of public areas in the companies and the distribution of protective masks and rapid tests, to the establishment of mandatory minimum distances between workplaces and the closure of canteens, to new shift models to minimize contact at the workplace. Still other companies, especially those with locations in the world’s major metropolises, such as Penguin Random House US, BMG and Fremantle, sent all their employees home and closed their offices – in some cases for a year and a half or more. The problem here was not so much the offices themselves, but the process of getting there. Millions of people commute to work every day from the surrounding boroughs and cities in overcrowded suburban trains, subways and buses to Manhattan or central London, thereby exposing themselves to a high risk of contagion.
Gütersloh Vaccination Center
March 2020 was followed by the usual ups and downs of the pandemic waves, which repeatedly hit individual countries such as India, Brazil, the United Kingdom and the United States particularly hard, accompanied by concern for the many employees who work for Bertelsmann in these countries. Protecting local employees was always a priority and also the focus of the work of the Bertelsmann Crisis Unit, which was established in January 2020. Its task was, and still is, to provide information and recommendations to support employees and companies in coping with the Covid-19 crisis. The most visible sign of this support was the establishment of a dedicated vaccination center in Gütersloh, the company’s largest location worldwide with 12,000 employees. It began operations on June 8, 2021, and by the time it was closed on January 27 of this year had carried out close to 10,000 first, second, and booster vaccinations. In addition, the company medical service carried out vaccination campaigns at various other Bertelsmann sites in Germany. And should a fourth vaccination campaign become necessary, the company medical service is prepared for that as well.
In March 2021, in his review of the 2020 financial year, Thomas Rabe drew a conclusion about the Covid-19 crisis that happily remains unchanged a year later: “Bertelsmann made it through the year of coronavirus in good shape economically – all while protecting your health, the health of its more than 130,000 employees around the world and in all its businesses, as best as possible from infection at the workplace.” The Executive Board, company and employees will continue to do everything in their power to ensure that this remains the case.